by Matthew Ross
The symphony starts, not with the sound you might expect but rather an empty note in the frosty dark before things begin. There in the space of night hanging above a rare gem, an interruption. A brilliant flash and now the orchestra has arrived.
It’s long, many kilometers so. A tube made from metal and plastic. As soon as it arrives, the instruments begin. A baton taping on a lectern for a dozen lifetimes finally calls the first section to life. A swarm of probes detaches and alights, singing their quiet songs about all they see and hear. They find not the expected four but rather five orbs of rock and two more made from gas, they take temperatures from their core and from the blazing star at the center. Gravity, composition, trajectory; reams of data flowing back to the ship like so many baseballs aimed for waiting mits. All of it is stored for future perusal.
Now tuned, the song may begin in earnest. The subject has been found, hanging just two places from the star, a world made from iron, silicon, aluminum, and then everything else save for free oxygen. The tube uncouples and becomes four large discs. Each a note in a measure which finds just the right spot on the surface upon which to plunge, an anxious percussion.
To be on that world would be terrifying, tectonics responding to heavenly bodies that rap just forcefully enough to split the skin of this fruit to reveal molten nutrition and warmth from the inside.
In each disc a whole orchestra of its own hums to life. Heavy rods plunge into pools of water becoming steam that turns wheels and makes electricity which brings a thousand inanimate bodies to life. Pistons fire and joints turn and all the while in the background, information. Information. Information. What is where? Water and salt, stone and soil, underscored by that one melody everyone is searching for and hoping not to find.
Relentless, each ship releases an army of small drones, each with a cadre of miniature versions of itself. They fly in every direction, talking to their parents, and then their aunts and uncles; siblings and cousins. Information flows about mountains, seas, valleys, clouds, rivers, and storms, where they came from, and their trajectories in the coming days and weeks and years, and millennia.
Absent that one note, the song continues. Thump, thump, thump, oxygen arrives, and the color green is born, spreading out across the rocks and dirt, staking into every surface to erect a tent of oxygen for what’s to come. Once the sandblasted plains have turned from brown to green the tiny drones tell the large drones to relay to the ships to distribute their parcels. It takes hours for each parcel to be carried to the outside of the ship. When it has arrived, it opens and a dozen coffins slide out gently. Each one is precious and is deposited on the ground with careful but mindless reverence. They are identical with a dozen hoses, a heater, and reservoirs of water and power.
The planet has rotated a hundred times or so before each parcel–womb splits wide. Inevitably, there are losses with so delicate a cargo. Black ichor spills out as confused, wiry frames scrabble for help that isn’t there. Anything that has gone wrong before now was simply steel, ones and zeros. These instruments, though, had been imbued with a special standing by those that made the tube and each one lost was a dirge within the medley.
Of those that remain, there was no black ichor but heady red fluid, complex and tangy, like nothing ever seen the world over. Set free from the sack in which they were sewn, the occupants walk out beneath a purple and black sky, holding delicate instruments aloft.
There is a soft but urgent tone.
“What is that?” says one to the other.
“Something they missed,” answers their counterpart.
The handheld instruments beeped and wheedled and offered a new view, something that no mind of ones and zeroes could have reported.
The melody. A sealed bag of protein, contents swishing as it made its way along; pseudopods feeling their way to another meal, a lonely instrument looking for its section.
“God dammit,” the first one sighs.
And just like that, the symphony stopped, there were no late percussionists, no lackadaisical brass, nor primadonna woodwind. A hundred thousand instruments all working together in a chorus and with the sideways stroke of a single angry maestro all sound is cut and the world over metal shapes, drones, and ships plummet to the ground, coolant spread over fissionable things until they are too cold to run, rendering engines and computers as quiet as the grave.
Somewhere across the vast night sky, the audience listens to the too-short symphony and with a roll of the eyes they thwack away amelodic on a tuneless board and with a click proclaim to all: LIFE DETECTED, OPERATION ABORTED.
Matt Ross graduated from IU with a bachelor’s in English creative writing in 2008. He went on to earn an MA in TESOL in 2017. Now, after a brief time in Rwanda with the Peace Corps., he works as a junior high school, high school, and university English teacher and researcher in Japan. His creative publications include “The Tharsis Dilemma” in Titanic Terastructures by Jay Henge publishing and “Ashes to Ashes” in Haunt by Dragon Soul Press.
My philosophy? Well, with sci-fi it’s usually some version of first contact. Reaching out into the great unknown and dealing with what’s found there is my primary area of interest with the genre. I tend to start with an idea and run with it until I feel I’ve wrung the story out of it, then leave it alone for a while and come back to it. My hope is that something grows. I like writing my stories when I’m not sure who will win or what will happen, sometimes it’s tragic but that’s what makes a story real for me no matter the genre, characters, or anything else.